Begging on the city streets, Rich Paschall
It was a particularly nice evening for this time of year. The temperature has been known to be brutal when the calendar reaches this point of winter, but this night was different. People walked as if the wind was not pushing them along. For a town known as “The Windy City,” there was barely any wind at all. A few people were standing about in front of sports bars, having a smoke or talking about this year’s football disaster. There was no reason to hurry inside.
A parking spot was waiting for me across the street from my destination. It was not the Wild West Restaurant and Sports Bar from the short story series from last year, but in my mind it was close enough. I was ready to order some food that I probably should not have, but I thought I would just forget the word “cholesterol” for a while.
As I crossed the street I noticed a man and woman walking down the sidewalk at a pace to intercept me at the corner. They passed up people smoking or chatting or both and headed straight for me. They were middle-aged, whatever that actually means, and rather poorly dressed. By that I mean, their clothes were worn and a bit dirty. They did not look grizzled as so many street people do, but rather just tired and run down.
“Do you have any change you can spare?” the man asked. The woman looked at me as if she was hopeful I would give a positive response.
“I don’t know,” I said honestly as I shoved my hands in my pockets to find out. At that the man launched into a story of their personal problems. He told me they had a streak of bad luck in recent years. They both had lost their jobs a few years back and eventually lost all they had.
Now they were living on the street and just trying to survive. He added a few details about their lives and capped it off by saying that his wife lost or had her identification stolen and that made their situation more difficult.
In my left pocket were a few coins which totaled just under a dollar. I handed it to the man but thought I could not let it go at that. In the past when I saw people begging at street corners, I thought they could turn things around for themselves if they just knew where to go and who to see. A little information might be all they need, so I thought I would do my best to pass some along.
“Do you know the church with the big clock tower down the street? You can see it when you get to the top of the bridge?” I pointed down the road toward St. Benedict’s. The impressive clock tower could be seen from a long distance down the road.
The man knew exactly what I was about to say. Yes, he knew the church and he did stop there on weekdays for lunch. If anyone came to the rectory during the week begging for food at lunch time (or much of the day), they provided some lunch. They were prepared and ready to give out something as begging had become a common occurrence in recent years.
The man then proceeded to tell me, in case I had a need to know, of other churches that would give them food. They knew where to go and on what days in order to get something. I guess it is nice to know the churches are responsive, as some of my Republican friends don’t feel this is the government’s job, but I was surprised to hear his list. The shocking part, in my opinion, is that we are not in a poor neighborhood. In fact, the land around St. Benedict’s itself is highly desirable and the property values are quite high.
How many of those upwardly mobile professionals know that so people are living on the streets and in the parks and under the viaducts nearby?
Undeterred in my efforts to hand out useful information, I asked the couple if they knew where the Salvation Army was located. I said they might be able to help them get back on their feet. They could certainly provide shelter in an emergency as the winter could get quite severe. They had a general idea where they were located, but they were skeptical that this was a good idea. So at that, I offered up information on The Night Ministry. This organization will go around in search of people needing help, especially on below freezing nights. They did not know it but said they would keep it in mind.
As they prepared to go, I told them to try to stay warm. They then told me they knew a few people who froze to death last year when we had many days of subzero weather. I encouraged them to remember the shelters when the weather gets worse. They said they would and moved on
I doubted they would use a shelter no matter how cold it got. How do people go from living a normal life to adapting to life on the street? How is it they become so set in this lifestyle, they would not use the help to get off the streets, even when they have information on how to do it? Is the real world just so tough for some that living on the streets is a viable option? The thought lingered as I moved inside for chicken wings and sports.